X Ray of the Lungs of a Coal Miner

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X Ray of the Lungs of a Coal Miner

Occupational Fatalities Decline


By: Chuck Nacke

Date: November 17, 2003

Source: Time&Life Pictures/Getty Images. "An X-Ray of the Lungs of a Coal Miner Suffering From Black Lung." Submitted 17 November 2003.

About the Photographer: Chuck Nacke is a photographer and photojournalist who began his career at age 15, when he began submitting pieces to a newspaper in his home town. He has traveled the globe as an industrial, corporate, and commercial photographer.


The United States Department of Labor (DOL) was created in 1913;its goals were "to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of working people, to improve their working conditions, and to enhance their opportunities for profitable employment." From the outset, it had a federal mandate to improve workplace safety and to decrease occupational fatalities. During the first year that the DOL was in existence, the total workforce numbered between 30 and 40 million, and there were a total of approximately 23,000 occupational fatalities. It has been nearly a century since the DOL embarked on its mission of improved workplace safety, and occupational fatalities have decreased dramatically—a fact that is even more meaningful when considering the increase in the nation's workforce (individuals who are employed either within or outside of the home).

At the turn of the century, roughly 140 million Americans were gainfully employed, representing an increase of one hundred million workers. In 1913, the workforce contained a significant number of children who worked full-time (counted by the DOL for statistical purposes so long as they were at least age ten); by the twenty-first century, youth below the age of sixteen were prohibited from employment by the majority of industries, and could seldom be employed full-time except during vacations from school. During the early days of the DOL, near 40 percent of those employed were involved in agriculture; that has declined to less than five percent of the total workforce currently. Construction, mining, railroad work, and manufacturing of goods have declined from more than 30 percent to less than 20 percent of those employed. There were few safeguards for workers in the early years of the twentieth century, and working conditions were often quite hazardous. The mining industry was largely unregulated at the start of the twentieth century, and fatal accidents numbered between one thousand to two thousand per year. By the start of the twenty-first century, that number has dropped to less than forty deaths annually.

Black lung disease (or coal worker's pneumoconiosis), as shown in the photograph of a coal miner' lungs, was once a common result of working in the coal mining industry. The disease was caused by minute particles of coal dust present in the air of coal mines, that caused irritation and tissue damage to miner' lungs when inhaled. The severity of black lung disease was often a function of the amount of exposure to coal dust over time. By their fifties, miners were often short of breath, and had the telltale black areas present upon lung x ray or tissue examination. Severe cases resulted in death from heart failure, when the right side of the heart became enlarged and strained due to chronic lung disease.



See primary source image.


The incidence of black lung disease has decreased markedly since the late 1960s. In 1969, the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was passed, mandating that dust levels be kept at a level of not more than 2.0mg per cubic meter (down from the prior allowable rate of 8.0mg per cubic meter). Although a slight risk of dust exposure remains even with the use of modern respirators by the miners, the reported incidence of the disease has significantly diminished.

Technological advances have greatly contributed to increased workplace safety: heating and cooling, lighting, electrical power with back up generators, air and water filtration, ventilation and environmental purification techniques, availability of reliable communication systems, and the vast advances made possible by computer technology have all contributed enormously to increasing the safety of the work environment, and to vastly improving the ability to respond expeditiously and appropriately during a job site crisis or disaster, decreasing fatalities in those situations.

Between 1980 and the present day, occupational fatalities have continued to decline steadily, at a rate of slightly more than three percent per year (per OSHA). Among all age groups, the single greatest change has occurred among workers who are between the ages of sixteen and twenty years old (about 7 percent). Unintentional injuries have declined at a greater rate than workplace homicides (just under 4 percent versus slightly less than 1 percent). Overall, the Southern and Western regions of the United States started out with the highest occupational fatality rates in 1980, and have seen the most significant annual percentage drops, particularly among unintentional injuries.

In considering changes in occupational fatalities, it is relevant to note that not all work-related fatalities occur on the jobsite. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) estimates that about 50,000 people die annually as a result of cumulative hazardous exposures on the job, and that another six million experience work-related injuries. All of these statistics represent significant decreases during the course of the century, but OSHA, in partnership with the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MHSA) are committed to continuing efforts aimed at identifying potential risk factors to employee health and safety, and ameliorating or eradicating them.

In 2004, there were a total of 5,703 workplace fatalities reported in the United States. Of those, 2,494 occurred in the manufacturing (459), construction (1,224), and mining and natural resources (811) industries. Of the remainder, the majority occurred in the trade, transportation, and utilities industry (1,455) and in professional and business services realm (448).

In line with its efforts directed at increasing workplace safety, efficiency, and productivity, OSHA has created a set of ergonomic guidelines (guidelines for correct posture and positioning of the body while at work) aimed at preventing on-the-job hazards. The aim of the guidelines is to create a set of uniform standards for various employment types and job locations that can be implemented on-site, increasing workplace safety, identifying possible mechanisms of injury, and outlining ways in which the potential risks or hazards can be managed or eliminated. This embodies a strong pro-active approach to decreasing workplace injuries and fatalities.



Loomis, D., D. B. Richardson, J. F. Bena and A. J. Bailer. "Deindustrialization and the long term decline in fatal occupational injuries." Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 61 (2004): 616-621.

Loomis, D., J. F. Bena and A. J. Bailer. "Diversity of trends in occupational injury mortality in the United States, 1980–1996." Injury Prevention. 9 (2003): 9-14.

Web sites

CDC National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) Program." 〈http://mentalhealth.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?site=http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/homepage.html〉 (accessed January 17, 2006).

chucknacke.com. "Photojournalism and About me." 〈http://chucknacke.com/aboutme.html〉 (accessed January 17, 2006).

United States Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries Summary, 2004." 〈http://stats.bls.gov/news.release/cfoi.nr0.htm〉 (accessed January 17, 2006).